Big Game Theatre

Set in an all-night diner in the run-down part of town, Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead attempts to re-create on the stage all the noise and busy confusion of life among the prostitutes, junkies, hoods, pimps, hustlers, and bums who made the seedier sections of Manhattan their home in the early 60s. Unemployed or between tricks or looking for their next fix, they congregate in the diner to talk, complain, or wait for a lover or a john who never arrives. On the sidewalk out front, the bums and the junkies hang out, muttering their crazed, stoned, but oddly appropriate monologues to the audience.

The choreographed chaos of all the entrances and exits and overlapping conversations in this 23-character play gives Balm in Gilead an exuberance that easily overcomes its more obvious dramatic flaws. With all the excitement and movement, we don’t care that we don’t get to know many of the characters very well, nor does it matter that it takes a long time for a story–Joe and Darlene’s tragically brief love affair–to emerge. Instead, we are swept away by all the invective (“Ah, your mother’s a whore!”), the gossip (“Hey, they got Jerry Joe in the can!”), and the usual transactions–for food, for drugs, for sex–that make life worth living, sort of, in America’s lower depths.

Every once in a while a heroin addict named Dopey, who acts as the play’s unofficial stage manager, steps through the fourth wall to explain in his drugged-out, inarticulate way how things work on their side of town, what is happening in the plot, or where we are in the play: “We’ll call an intermission here.” But most of the time the play bumps by noisily, overloading the audience with two or three simultaneous conversations, each of which we can half-follow, or testing our patience with long, rambling monologues.

In the wrong hands, this play could be sheer torture. In the right hands, however–say, John Malkovich circa 1980–the play can be an amazing piece of theater, intense, absorbing, exhausting. In fact, Steppenwolf Theatre’s twice-revived version remains the Chicago standard by which all other productions must be measured. And not just by critics. The night I saw Big Game Theatre’s production, I overheard three different reminiscences about Steppenwolf’s.

Happily, though director Anna D. Shapiro lacks Malkovich’s brilliance, she’s quite capable of crafting a likable, competent, and occasionally inspired production out of this difficult text. Shapiro copes well with the play’s controlled chaos: she never allows the overlapping dialogue to turn into mere noise, the constant entrances and exits into a riot. Nor do these 23 actors allow the general chaos to make them miss their cues or otherwise confuse them.

On the downside, not all of the characters are equally convincing. Some players are great: Martin Duffy and Daniel Farmer as the diner’s two grillmen look like they’ve spent their lives working at greasy spoons. And Eric Hoffman is quite creepy as Chuckles’s ever-friendly messenger, the kind of guy who gives you a neighborly smile even as he’s stabbing you in the heart.

On the other hand, this show’s prostitutes, with their stock hooker uniforms, right down to the black stockings and overly made-up faces, look and act like nothing so much as actresses pretending to be whores. They would never be mistaken for the real thing on Belmont. Same for most of the street people in the show, if you saw them on Wabash at lunchtime. The exceptions are Mark Rosenthal as Fick, who really knows how to stare like a burnt-out heroin addict, and Robert Dennard Simonton, with his dirty stocking cap and the awkward, dangling way his arms hang at his side.

At first, I thought Tina Gluschenko had been miscast as Darlene. She seems too perky and upscale suburban, in her fashionably faded denim miniskirt and her cute white boots with the fringe, to pass for the kind of loser who could drift into this crowd of whores and drug abusers. In the second act, however, Gluschenko showed her real strengths as an actress in her terrific reading of Darlene’s 20-minute monologue. It’s hard not to admire anyone who can make this rambling, difficult monologue look easy.

Just as it’s hard not to admire a theater company that manages in its first production to pull off a play this difficult, with a minimum of slipups. While it’s far, far too early to crown them the next Steppenwolf, it isn’t too early to say that we look forward to this young, gutsy theater’s next production.